Friday, January 28, 2011

The Mechanic: Reasonably well tuned

The Mechanic (2011) • View trailer for The Mechanic
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, nudity, sexual content and relentless brutal violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.28.11

As William Goldman explained so well in his fascinating 1983 study of the Hollywood scene, Adventures in the Screen Trade, the presence of a star affects the core dynamic of a motion picture, while also influencing our expectations upon seeing it.

A movie fashioned for Brad Pitt will, of necessity, undergo serious changes if he leaves and subsequently is replaced by Hugh Grant. And our anticipation, when entering the theater – knowing what Grant is likely to bring to the project, as opposed to what Pitt would have brought – changes accordingly.
When a clockwork-smooth assignment suddenly goes sour, once again due to
clumsy behavior by Steve (Ben Foster, left), he and Bishop (Jason Statham)
are stranded on a hotel roof, with plenty of gun-toting thugs swiftly surrounding
their position. The only solution? Plenty of blood-spurting carnage, of course!

Charles Bronson hadn’t yet become a household name when he made The Mechanic back in 1972; that level of fame wouldn’t arrive until 1975’s Death Wish. If people recognized him at all, it was from long-running roles in television’s Have Gun, Will Travel and supporting performances in films such as The Great Escape and The Dirty Dozen. Even though Bronson was appearing in up to five Westerns and exploitation flicks per year, by the late 1960s, most weren’t doing anything for his mainstream cred.

The Mechanic, along with The Valachi Papers and one or two others, began to turn that around.

Tautly directed by Michael Winner, from a slick and intelligent script by Lewis John Carlino, The Mechanic proved a perfect fit for Bronson’s laconic bearing and weather-beaten features. And since Bronson wasn’t yet a star, and thus didn’t present viewers with any expectations, Carlino’s clever and well-calculated storyline could move in unpredictable directions.

Jason Statham, in great contrast, is a well-established action star. His films may not be top-drawer – indeed, sometimes are pretty bad (Crank 2, anybody?) – but he remains popular nonetheless. And fans know what to expect: plenty of mayhem, lots of martial arts-style beat-downs and plenty of ’tude.

Particularly the latter. Statham is cool. Way-cool, in the same way Steve McQueen was cool during his younger years.

So while Statham is a solid choice for director Simon West’s muscular remake/update of The Mechanic, the story’s essence has been altered, and quite seriously. We never knew what was coming from Bronson’s Arthur Bishop; he was utterly unpredictable. Statham, on the other hand, is completely predictable ... as is our suspicion of where this film will go, when it hits the third act.

Longtime movie fans with fond memories of Bronson’s film won’t be surprised to learn that new screenwriter Richard Wenk, while adhering to several of the basic plot points, has changed a great deal.

Particularly the story’s conclusion, which is a shame. Carlino’s original take was far more interesting – credible, even – and left a much greater impact.

Statham’s Bishop is a “mechanic”: a professional problem-solver, which is to say, an assassin for hire. He’s introduced while unerringly completing his current assignment, which involves terminating a Colombian drug lord. In and out, nobody the wiser, and everybody left believing that the baddy accidentally drowned in his own swimming pool. Neat, tidy, efficient.

The next assignment has ... complications. Although Bishop completes the task as directed, this one upsets his spiritual balance, derails the mental tricks he employs to remain sane and reasonably well-adjusted. (I was reminded of novelist Lawrence Block’s career assassin, Keller, while watching this film’s early scenes. Keller is much more refined than Statham’s Bishop – and less physical – but their “head space” feels the same.)

Maybe that explains why Bishop becomes atypically sympathetic when he crosses paths with Steve (Ben Foster, effectively channeling the psychopath he played so well in 3:10 to Yuma), the ne’er-do-well son of a respected colleague. Steve, bad with impulse control and consumed by both rage and self-pity, appears likely to drink himself to death ... unless he does something even more stupid first. Bishop takes pity on the young man and – perhaps aware of his own advancing years, and recognizing that those in his profession never are allowed to “retire” – takes him on as an apprentice.

Well ... no.

Wenk’s script presents us with only one huge pill to swallow, and this is that horse tablet. The task is impossible; we simply can’t get it down. I’ll allow Bishop’s initial fit of compassion, but a few hours in Steve’s company is enough to confirm the guy’s unbalanced behavior, his anger-management issues and latent homicidal tendencies. In short, Steve is a loose cannon, his very presence a constant threat to Bishop’s methodical nature and precise work.

And, indeed, from this point forward, Bishop’s assignments – now carried out with Steve’s “help” – become sloppy. Messy. Vicious.

This is certain to please Statham’s fans, who come for the sort of mayhem that the action star delivers with such ruthless finesse. West, as well, is no stranger to the more-is-more philosophy of crazed action flicks, having cut his directorial teeth on genre classics such as Con Air and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. (For my money, though, West’s best contribution to modern pop culture remains Keen Eddie, the short-lived 2003 TV series he produced and occasionally directed.)

Be advised, then: West’s Mechanic is relentlessly, brutally violent. We get a taste of this during Steve’s ill-advised skirmish with his first solo target: a man-mountain named Burke (former football pro Jeff Chase) who administers one helluva beating before the novice assassin finally gains the upper hand. It’s a lengthy, nasty, wince-inducing sequence, superbly choreographed by however many stuntmen were required to make it look so bone-shatteringly real.

(Steve, of course, survives with only minor cuts and bruises. That’s Hollywood for ya.)

Subsequent to this fiasco, Bishop finds himself more frequently attending to damage control. Yes, it allows Statham to deliver his own brand of whup-ass, but it runs completely counter to the nature of Bishop’s character. I mean, really; Bishop should – would – have iced the kid after the debacle with Burke.

This relationship imbalance becomes an increasingly glaring problem in Wenk’s script. Back in the day, Jan-Michael Vincent’s Steve may have been cocky, but he wasn’t deranged; he established and built up a solid rapport with Bronson’s Bishop, based on mutual respect. We understood and believed the relationship.

We never believe the relationship here.

That aside, the rest of this remake goes down with genre precision, allowing for West’s tendency for wretched excess in the mayhem department. (Still, you gotta love the crashing stunt involving an SUV and a bus.) Plenty of bad guys meet gruesome ends in this spectacle of escalating violence, and – we can but grin – Statham neither looks winded nor breaks into a sweat.

Tony Goldwyn is spot-on as a black-ops “handler” whom we immediately suspect is dirty-dirty-dirty: the guy we love to hate, and can’t wait to see taken down. Donald Sutherland establishes plenty of good will as Bishop’s friend and mentor, and Swedish fashion model Mini Anden slides out of her clothes for a rather bombastic sex scene. (West and editors T.G. Herrington and Todd E. Miller rather overdo the MTV-style smash-cuts here.)

Without question, Statham’s Mechanic delivers what his fans desire, and it’s a far better night at the movies this weekend, than Anthony Hopkins’ laughable turn in the dull and lifeless The Rite.

But do yourself a favor: Check out Bronson’s version, and compare the two. Then let me know which one you prefer.


  1. First off I would like to say fantastic blog! I had a quick question that I'd like to ask if you don't mind.
    I was interested to know how you center yourself and clear your head
    prior to writing. I've had a difficult time clearing my mind in getting my ideas out there. I do take pleasure in writing but it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes tend to be wasted simply just trying to figure out how to begin. Any suggestions or hints? Thanks!
    Feel free to visit my web site : click here

  2. First of all, thanks for the kind words.

    There's no big secret to "centering"; I tend not to start writing until I have a good entry point -- an attention-getting first line or paragraph -- and then the rest flows reasonably well.

    But here's some advice that you may find helpful, which I've carried with me for years and years; it came from a well-established writer, and unfortunately, over time I've forgotten who it was. Just start writing, and plug away until you've finished your essay/article/whatever. Then go back and delete the entire first third ... and start again from the beginning of the second third. This essentially recognizes that most of us waste time and words "getting ready," and that we're generally better organized about one-third of the way in. If you practice this religiously for awhile (by which I mean six months to a year), then you'll develop the ability to recognize where you "would" have started, one-third in, and you'll be able to start there right away and be more efficient.